Conservatism and Community
American Enterprise Institute, Kristol Lecture
May 8, 2013
I want to thank Arthur for his remarks. And I want to thank all of you for this award. It’s always an honor to be recognized by your peers. But it’s a special honor to be recognized for your work—for your contribution to a cause. And I’m especially grateful because in this case it’s our common cause. It’s the American Idea.
What is this idea? Well, it’s the belief that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t determine the outcome of your life—that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. As I’ll explain, this belief is at risk—and in need of support. And AEI has given its support. For years, you’ve taught the country about the American Idea: what it means, where it came from, who first spoke of it, and why. One man who gave his all to this effort was Irving Kristol.
Kristol was a Renaissance man. He could discuss Rousseau, then size up Reagan—all while the rest of us tried to catch up. He was that perfect blend of book smarts and know-how. In short, he was one of a kind.
But you’ve carried on his work. You’ve continued to defend the American Idea. Four years ago, Charles Murray stood here and argued we should keep our way of life because it’s the best way of life—the most challenging and the most fulfilling. Last year, Leon Kass took up the baton. He argued we should love our country, not just because it’s our own—but because it is good. It respects every person’s dignity. Both men reminded us why we should defend the American Idea.
But we might lose it. Today the Left runs Washington. They want to replace the American Idea with the progressive state. They want to replace equal opportunity with equal outcomes. And they’re well intentioned, I might add. They’re trying to do good as they see it. Hard as it might be to admit, they’re speaking to a need—a need for security in a world of growing complexity. Before conservatives can win, we have to understand what we’re doing wrong.
The fact is, we also have to speak to this need. We have to explain how too much government will weaken security—and how our agenda will increase security. We have to reclaim the center of our politics. And we can. It’s not too late.
My predecessors on this stage discussed why we should save the American Idea. Tonight, I want to discuss how we can save it. It’s a big project. It goes beyond politics. But I’ll stick to the political side—with a due sense of humility in a crowd like this. Here’s the CliffsNotes version: Both the Left and the Right too often split the world into two halves: the individual and the government. They forget a key part of life—the part that gives real security. They forget society—that space in between. We can save the American Idea by saving that space for society.
All in all, I hope that I show you the value of a politician’s perspective—and that you don’t take the award back when I’m done.
First, let’s review where things stand. The Left thinks we’re in a new era—and for good reason. The health-care law isn’t just another entitlement. It puts one-sixth of our economy in the hands of federal bureaucrats. It allows government to stage-manage our lives in the most personal of domains: our health. And now that the Supreme Court has upheld the law, we cannot be sure it will enforce the Constitution’s limits. We can’t be sure government will stay within its bounds.
So how did we get here? The health-care law is part of a larger movement called progressivism—which began in the late 19th century. At first, it was a bipartisan affair. The progressives included both Republicans, like Teddy Roosevelt—and Democrats, like Woodrow Wilson. These leaders were skeptical of the Constitution. They disliked the idea of limited government.
You can understand why. At the turn of the 20th century, change was everywhere—from the crowded streets of New York to the plains of Texas. America was becoming more urban, more industrial. Families were leaving the farm for the city, where their lives fell into turmoil. And life became more complex. No longer did most lives follow the changing of the seasons. They now followed the twists and turns of the business cycle.
We were growing fast—which meant serious growing pains. Immigrants slept in tiny apartments—ten people to a room. Families lived with the threat of disease—and, too often, death. Banks went bust. Our economy was growing mightily. But there was great pain too. And that pain seemed to cry out for somebody to do something. And that somebody, the progressives thought, was the federal government.
The progressives thought they were improving on the Founders’ work. They thought the Constitution was old and inadequate. People needed more than natural rights. They needed government-granted rights. Only government could navigate the turns of history. Only government could remove the uncertainty from life. In the progressive state, government would build up the most wealth for our country—and divvy it up in the fairest way.
The progressives saw our federal system as an obstacle. They thought our local communities were parochial and inefficient. Why should people have to rely on their family? Why should they have to work with their neighbors? They believed the attachments of family and neighborhood—like the Constitution—were old and inadequate.
Their policies weakened those attachments. In fact, they strengthened only one attachment—to government. The progressives wanted a national community, where government stood supreme, tending to the needs of its subjects.
Progressivism is well-intentioned. But it is also—in my humble opinion—arrogant and condescending. Instead of helping people make their own decisions, it makes those decisions for them. It makes Washington the center of power—and politicians the center of attention. Here’s one reason Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive. His daughter once said he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.
But this vision proved compelling. It drew thousands of people into government: the New Dealers, the whiz kids, the poverty warriors. Confident in their cause, they seized the moral high ground. They said they were the heirs of the Founders—when in reality, they were the replacements. They said they were for the people. And their opponents? They were for the rich. They were selfish. When we were debating the health-care bill in the House, one Democrat described the Republican position this way: “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” Funny, I don’t remember that part.
The progressives hijacked our rhetoric too. They knew the appeal of our founding principles. They masked their novel ideas in the Founders’ language. As president, Woodrow Wilson started new federal agencies and created a new income tax. And what did he call his agenda? The New Freedom.
Behind all this talk is the same idea—the same idea behind the health-care law. The Left thinks they can make health care more rational. And they don’t mind stepping on a few toes to do it. The law puts new burdens on doctors. It adds new coverage mandates—including those that violate some people’s religious beliefs. So doctors talk of closing their offices. And Catholic bishops are thinking of closing their hospitals. Government is pushing out all those providers who don’t agree with it. It’s clearing out the space between itself and each person. It’s invading deeply personal relationships—and in some cases, ending them.
Yet the Left keeps winning elections. Why? Well, you can see the appeal. In uncertain times, people look for security. Progressives seem to have an answer. We may not be leaving the farms anymore. But we are moving into an information-driven economy, where change is rapid. “Creative destruction” sounds a lot better than it feels. Change dislocates and disrupts. The hardships are real. And the progressive state offers a sense of security.
But it’s a false sense of security—because government can’t keep all its promises. We’re learning this the hard way. For years, we’ve talked about big government in theory. Now, we’re seeing it in practice. Again, look at the health-care law. We were told if you liked your insurance plan, you could keep it. But companies are expected to drop coverage. We were told if you liked your doctor, you could keep her. But your doctor might not keep you. We were told premiums would fall. But they’re going up—dramatically.
The health-care law will collapse under its own weight. But we have to offer something better in its place. This is our opportunity to take back the initiative. And our goal isn’t just to win an election. It’s to improve people’s lives. Politics is a means to an end. And the end is for all people to be able to pursue happiness.
So our job isn’t to make even more empty promises. It’s to revive the American Idea. We have to show the American Idea is superior to the progressive state—both in our time and for all time. We have to show the American Idea offers true security—because unlike the progressive state, it offers true community. Its promise is real.
Here’s what the Left got right: The American Idea needs a strong government to secure it. But a government is effective only when it is limited. And a massive government can stifle the American Idea. Government can’t replace our local communities. And it shouldn’t even try. Instead, it should reinforce our communities. Government should expand the space where a free society can thrive.
We should expand that space because it’s part of the American Idea. We want everyone to have a chance in life—a chance to be happy. And we’re happiest when we’re together. We want to be together. It’s in our nature. We feel it in our bones.
Now, Barney Frank once said government is the name for the things we do together. But that’s just one name. There are lots of them: the church meeting, the neighborhood watch, the food bank, the small business, the health clinic, the homeless shelter. We like to call these things “mediating institutions.” But in the end, they’re just people—people working together.
And the more we work together—out of our own free will—the stronger we become. The strongest glue isn’t fear or force. It’s friendship and love. We stick together because we share the same beliefs. That’s the source of our strength. And when government tries to do too much—when it replaces cooperation with coercion—it weakens our country. It pulls us apart. It deprives people of their purpose.
So conservatives most of all believe in cooperation—because we believe most of all in freedom. That’s something I learned from AEI—from people like Peter Berger, Richard Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Bill Schambra. You’ve preserved and expanded on Robert Nisbet’s central insight: People hunger for freedom—for self-fulfillment. And they hunger for a community—where they realize their potential. That’s the key to the American Idea. And I learned it from you.
I also learned it from my mom Betty. My dad died when I was 16. And it was tough on our family. But my mom went out and got involved. She got involved in everything: the school board, the local parish, the garden club, the bridge club. Heck, she didn’t even know how to play bridge. She still doesn’t. And she made lifelong friends—in a group of widows, actually. When a friend in Janesville lost a husband, Betty was the first to comfort. And over time, the group began to grow. Out of their loss, they created something new. They formed a community of support.
She’s just one of many people like her. My hometown—Janesville, Wisconsin—is full of them—like Burdette Erickson. Several years ago, the fourth ward of Janesville was overrun with drug dealers. And they were brazen. They did deals in the light of day—even on one elderly woman’s front porch. She wouldn’t look out her front blinds because she was afraid she’d be shot. So Burdette gathered his neighbors in his basement one night. And they made a pact with one another: Either the drug dealers go—or we go.
Then they formed a neighborhood watch. The families told the police about the gangs’ deals and hideouts. And soon, they took back the ward. Now, inmates in the local prison tell each other to avoid Janesville—because they’ll be busted. Young families are moving in. And the drug dealers are moving out.
Our country is full of stories like these—of people banding together to meet a common need. And the most obvious example is our system of free enterprise. As Arthur likes to say, we have to remember free enterprise isn’t only the efficient thing to do. It’s also the right thing to do—because it’s a school of character. The voluntary exchange of goods and services brings out the best in us. It builds trust. It teaches discipline. And it rewards hard work. We have to make the moral case for free enterprise.
In short, we have to show the full scope of our vision. We have to explain that conservatism is about more than the economy. It’s also about our culture. It’s about the kind of country we want to be. It’s about the kind of life we want to share. We want people to enjoy the journey of living a full life—a life full of trials and tribulations, loss and gain, and ultimately the betterment of ourselves, our children, and our communities.
We have failed to communicate this vision to those who have never heard of it. We’ve retreated to our cultural cul-de-sacs in an effort to protect our immediate surroundings. Meanwhile, our inner cities, our barrios, and our poor rural communities have languished. This is where our opportunity lies. This is where we must go. This is where we must demonstrate our full vision of freedom and community.
This vision is our response to progressivism. It’s not as easy to sell. But it is more complete—and much more real. We have to show how it works—and how, in so many cases, today’s version of the American Idea is right under our noses.
We can start just six miles down the road. A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Anacostia with my good friend Bob Woodson. I’m a big fan of his—and a big believer in his Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. You see, Bob doesn’t just talk about these communities. He talks with these communities. In fact, it’s in these very neighborhoods that we see our vision in action. Tonight, I want to share a story I heard just six miles from here. It’s about a man named James Woods.
James grew up around here. His family wasn’t well off. They struggled. But they loved each other. He served ten years in the military. After he got out, he met up with some friends from his past. And those friends got him in trouble. They started selling drugs. He became addicted. He was homeless. He slept in the streets. Soon, the law caught up with him.
James was charged with selling drugs. The law said 20 years in prison. But a judge gave him a break: He got only three.
After James got out of prison, he made a decision. He wanted to be the man his parents raised him to be. He would change. So he joined an all-men’s ministry. But he was still struggling. He was still searching. Every night through his bedroom window, he would hear singing. It was the ministry of Pastor Shirley Holloway right next door. James didn’t know Pastor Holloway. But he heard her members praying. And he was intrigued. So one day he went across the street and joined the House of Help City of Hope.
It was a life-changing moment. James became good friends with Pastor Holloway. And she did him a big favor: She paid his legal fees to keep him out of jail. James got a job and offered to pay her back. But instead of cashing his checks, Pastor Holloway was saving them, so he would have a nest egg. He was stunned. It wasn’t that she saved his money—without his knowing. And it wasn’t that she gave him a job. It was that she showed him love. James would say he didn’t expect Pastor Holloway’s love—because she didn’t know him. But in a way, she did know James. She knew who he could be.
Soon James turned his life around. At the ministry, he met his future wife Angela. She had followed a path similar to James’s. Today, they’ve been married for 13 years. As James would say, Angela loves God now. And because she’s his wife, she’s always praying. James has been clean for 13 years. He now counsels about 60 men at the ministry. He helps the unemployed, the homeless, the addicted. Angela, meanwhile, has a steady job as a security guard.
If you asked Pastor Holloway for her secret, she’d say her ministry uses two ingredients: faith and love. Her motto is, “We don’t see the problem. We see the person.” Since the ministry started in 1995, they’ve served over 40,000 people struggling with drug abuse. And 85 percent of their members have stayed clean—85 percent.
The secret, of course, is the people. In people we find real security—and real love. A welfare check wouldn’t have helped James. It might have met his material needs—but only for a time. He had spiritual needs too. Only people—and God—can address those needs. James, Angela, and Pastor Holloway are three great examples. I’m honored to have them as my guests tonight. Please join me in recognizing them for their inspiring story.
When we make policy, we should keep people like James in mind. Our job isn’t to replace the Pastor Holloways. It’s to support them. Yes, the federal government has a role to play. But it’s a supporting role, not the leading one. Its job is to give people the resources—and the space—to thrive. And in this role, we should follow two principles: solidarity and subsidiarity.
Solidarity is the belief that we’re all in this together. We share a common purpose: the pursuit of happiness. And public servants should share one goal: the common good.
Subsidiarity is like federalism. It’s the belief that each part of society adds to the whole, and that each part must be free to do its work—on its own terms. So government shouldn’t assume other people’s tasks. It shouldn’t make decisions better left with the family or the neighborhood. The people closest to the problem are the most likely to solve it—because they know the community best. And this is the opposite of progressivism, which believes Washington knows best.
We need to apply these timeless principles to the challenges of today. That’s what we do in the House budget. Our budget is known for one part of our vision—that government can’t spend beyond its means. And it’s true. The national debt hurts our economy. It restricts opportunity. It weighs down our communities.
We have to stop spending money we don’t have. That’s our policy. But that’s not our purpose. Our purpose is to reclaim the American Idea. And our policies reflect that purpose. We’re not just trying to balance the books. We’re trying to grow the economy. We’re trying to expand the space for society.
The welfare state threatens to close that space. That’s why we need to change course. We need to strike a balance between society and government. We need to let each part play its role. We need government to meet its obligations without crowding out the American Idea.
In short, our purpose is to ensure that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead. It’s to leave our children a country as strong as the one we inherited. And to do that, government must reinforce the space for society. It must apply the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.
Take Medicare. We need to protect this critical program. We need to maintain solidarity with seniors. But we also need to strengthen it—by harnessing the knowledge of our local communities. We need to harness the power of subsidiarity.
Instead of imposing one plan on everyone, we give seniors a choice—so they can pick the insurance plan that works best for them. Progressives think people aren’t smart enough to make these decisions on their own. But look at Medicare’s prescription-drug benefit. It works like the reform we’d apply to all of Medicare. It comes in consistently under budget. And satisfaction with the program is sky high.
We apply these same principles to Medicaid. We maintain funding to show solidarity with the poor. And we harness the power of subsidiarity by enlisting the aid of the states. We give state governments more flexibility. We let them tailor their programs to their people’s needs. And by doing so, we hope to make Medicaid a better program for the people who rely on it.
But our replacement must go further. We have to help people who aren’t on either program. And that’s the majority of our country. The health-care law will make things worse. But even the current health-care system needs to be fixed.
Today, our tax code provides an open-ended subsidy for an employee’s health insurance. It does nothing for people who buy insurance on their own. The code locks workers to their jobs, favors the wealthy, and pushes up costs. Well, we need to help families get and keep their insurance.
We can do that by attaching the tax benefit to the individual. And if they choose a plan less expensive than the benefit, they get a refund. People shouldn’t lose their insurance if they change jobs. The benefit should travel with the person—not with the job.
The big question in health care is who should decide? We think you should decide, not Washington. Under our plan, the federal government would make a defined contribution to your health-care security. We would cap the growth rate of that contribution—to eliminate waste and to encourage competition. But we would also give more help to the poor and the sick—and less help to the rich. Support would go only to those who needed it. And under our plan, we would put you in control. Only you know what works best for you and your family.
Our reforms should offer people not just the dignity of self-determination—but the comfort of community. Health care is a deeply personal issue. When your health is at stake, you want your doctor to be someone you trust, someone you know—someone who knows you. In Janesville, we are more likely to see our doctors at the YMCA or the school play than at the clinic—just as it can and should be. You don’t want to be just the next person in line. You want the doctor to be like family. But the health-care law is forcing doctors to close their practices. It’s taking this relationship out of your hands.
If we reform health care the right way, free enterprise can control costs and increase quality—without this kind of bullying. Markets aren’t bleak tundras where the strong dominate the weak—as progressives too often imagine. They’re pipelines of knowledge. They bring crucial decisions to the family, where they belong.
It’s not just health care. We have to apply these principles to all the challenges of today: defense, energy, education, immigration, taxes. We have to explain how our policies will improve people’s lives. The answer is, we will use the power and resources of government to give people the room to thrive. We will maintain the partnership our society has had with our government in the past—even in this new era of an aging society and a global economy.
This is a complete vision of conservatism. It’s what we’re striving for. It’s not a vision of petty materialism. It’s not one of lonely individuals overseen by a massive government. It’s one of moral nourishment, of self-fulfillment, of growth and opportunity.
We can’t treat politics like a game. We aren’t competing for a trophy. We’re competing over the country’s future. We’re trying to determine what kind of people we will be. We have to recognize the stakes. We have to get serious.
And we will. Winston Churchill once said the Americans can be counted on to do the right thing—only after they’ve exhausted all other possibilities. He got that right. Sometimes, other people can see us better than we see ourselves. In fact, I think the best description of the American spirit was written by a Frenchman: Alexis de Tocqueville.
We remember Tocqueville for his keen study of our culture. We remember his insight that our local communities are schools of freedom. They teach us how to see past our differences. They teach us how to work together.
But he also had a sense for politics. He said the Senate was home to “the celebrities of America”—that there was hardly a member who hadn’t done an “illustrious deed.” The House, on the other hand, was home to “obscure persons.” He added, “Often the eye seeks in vain for a celebrated man within in it.” Kind of humbling, you know?
But on a night like this, I’m less eager to stand out—and more eager to join in. To receive the Kristol Award is to join a fellowship of scholars. It’s to take part in the community of ideas. You’re the people who got me interested in politics. You taught me how to take it seriously. So I’m grateful to you all.
And I’m grateful for tonight. You’re quite the crowd for an evening’s company. And in your dedication to truth—and your pursuit of justice—you’re a testament to the American Idea.